The Parthenon Sculptures - Bring Them Back - Why Chania Stories
The Parthenon Sculptures – Image Credits: Tom Jamieson by New York Times

The Parthenon Sculptures: Bring Them Back.


The debate of whether the Parthenon Sculptures held in the British Museum should return to Greece remains controversial through the years. The sculptures are the subject of one of the longest cultural rows in the world and the views on the fate of the treasures differ.

I am Greek and I wanna go HOME

The return of the marbles back to Athens remains the priority of the Ministry of Culture of Greece which frequently conducts campaigns to provide publicity to the subject while British museum claims the legal and rightful ownership of the Marbles. Displayed at the London museum since 1832, their return has been demanded by Greece for much of that time, leaving the two countries stuck in a sometimes testy stalemate. It is now time “to do something qualitatively different”, Victoria Hislop suggests

There’s an aesthetic case for unification, somewhere, and a geographic case for reunification in Greece. No god or goddess should be made to bear the indignity of headlessness, and no visitor should be needlessly deprived of viewing a masterpiece that’s actually in one piece.

Molly Roberts, Editorial Writer, Washington Post

The Acropolis Under Siege

The Parthenon was constructed between 447 and 432 B.C.E., a period of artistic and military triumph considered the golden age of ancient Greece. The Athenians had expelled a Persian invasion prior to the temple’s construction, preserving their democracy, and the project became symbolic of the epoch-defining battle.

Vividly painted sculptures and decorations adorned the lavish temple to the city-state’s patron deity, Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war. Ninety-two carved metopes, square blocks placed between the columns, adorned the exterior walls of the Parthenon, depicting the Trojan War and other mythological battles.

Along the entire length of the Parthenon’s inner chamber was a frieze likely depicting a procession to the Acropolis. Two sculptured pediments depict the birth of Athena and the conflict between the goddess and Poseidon over the land which would become Athens.

But the temple fell into a derelict state following the occupation of the Ottoman occupation of Greece in the 15th century. Ottoman troops repurposed the Parthenon as a mosque (a minaret was even constructed). But around half the site was destroyed in an ensuing battle between the Venetians and the Ottomans. In September of 1687, a Venetian mortar struck the monument, causing an explosion that destroyed its roof but spared its pediments.

British press publicized the vulnerability of the monument—“It is to be regretted that so much admirable sculpture as is still extant about this fabric should be all likely to perish from ignorant contempt,” the English antiquarian Richard Chandler wrote in 1770—encouraging western travelers to pillage its treasures in the interest of preservation. Their legal justification was tacit approval from Ottoman authorities.

The former British ambassador to the empire, the Scottish nobleman Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine, had greater ambitions. In 1799, amid Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, he was sent back to Greece to foster closer relations with the Ottoman sultan Selim III.

He was instructed to survey and create casts of the country’s great monuments, so he brought with him a team of British artists led by painter Giovanni Battista Lusieri. But by then, it was difficult to approach the Parthenon and Ottoman troops demanded hefty daily payments for access. Already strapped for funds, Elgin directly appealed to the sultan for a firmen, or special permission, for his project to commence.

On July 6, 1801, the sultan issued the following firmen: “When they wish to take away some pieces of stone with old inscriptions and figures, no opposition be made.” Elgin interpreted this to mean he and his team could not only create copies of the monument but dismantle and export any pieces of interest.

Some of the present restitution debate has focused on Elgin’s interpretation of the firmen. A major 1967 study by British historian William St. Clair concluded that the ambiguous language more likely referred to items uncovered during excavations, not the Parthenon façade itself.

Elgin’s team removed 15 metopes, and 247 feet, or around half of the surviving frieze, including a female sculpture from the portico of Erechtheion and four fragments from a smaller temple to Athena Nike also located on the Acropolis. In 1803, the collection was loaded into some two hundred boxes and transported via the port of Piraeus to England.

The river God Ilissos - Why Chania Stories
The River God Ilissos – Why Chania Stories – © THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM

The Marbles Arrive in London

Elgin imagined the Marbles would be used for public display and intended to reconstruct part of the Parthenon. The Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova was even volunteered for the commission. Canova, however, rejected the possibility, stating that “it would be a sacrilege for any man to touch them with a chisel.” In fact, at that time, public opinion in London was divided on the propriety of having removed the marbles from Greece.

One of the most vocal critics was the Romantic poet Lord Byron, whose narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage decried British imperialism, and called the removal of the marbles the “last poor plunder.” Byron alludes to Elgin in his annotations of the poem with epithets like “spoiler,” “robber,” and “violator.”

However, not all were moved by the poet’s protests: enormous crowds flocked to see the marbles in 1807 when Elgin installed them in a house near Piccadilly in London. Public interest prompted the British government to consider Elgin’s offer to sell the marbles to the national collection. Despite his titles, Elgin was in serious financial straits after personally covering the cost of shipping the sculptures to England. Including bribes for safe passage, the total price was £74,000—equal to more than $1 million today. In 1816, Parliament created a commission to assess Elgin’s offer that priced the marbles at £35,000. The sale was approved by a margin of two votes.

In 1832, the marbles were relocated to the Elgin Room in the British Museum—the same year Greece won independence from the Ottoman Empire. Successive Greek governments have petitioned for the return of the works. In the 1980s, the government formally asked the British Museum to repatriate the marbles, citing the fact that authorization was given for their removal by an occupying empire, not the Greek government.

Caryatid, An Elegant Lady of Athens – Image Credits: Bring Them Back Organization

Bestselling British Author Victoria Hislop Says: Do the Right Thing

For many years, I sat on the fence in the debate over where the Sculptures truly belonged. As a child I was regularly taken to the British Museum and marveled at the many majestic and ancient sculptures that towered above my head. I, like most British children of the 1960s, felt it was our birthright to walk through this imposing building and learn about the history and culture of civilization. It never crossed my mind (nor most people’s in those days) that many of those things were removed against the will of their countries of origin.

The Sculptures were called “the Elgin Marbles” in those days (at least that has changed) and I for one happily believed that Lord Elgin (a man with a posh title, so surely an upright chap?) had “saved” the sculptures for posterity and brought them to England for a new audience to appreciate (because, surely, the Turks did not). History was so simple for British children in those days. Our history books were full of heroic victories and we believed that the British Empire had brought great benefits to many different parts of the world. Bringing objects of both artistic and spiritual value from many other countries, all of them poorer than ourselves at the time, seemed perfectly normal.

Nowadays we question all of that. Many in Britain are reconsidering the actions that were taken in the past by the British. We can’t undo most of them (slavery being the most enormous and terrible example) but already we are apologizing for some of the many mistakes made by our ancestors. Even the gesture of doing this is important.

Going back to the Sculptures specifically, this was a case for me of questioning all the facts and circumstances surrounding how they ended up in a gloomy, badly lit gallery in the British Museum, thousands of miles from the translucent Hellenic light where they were created.

I read everything I could find (including Christopher Hitchens and Geoffrey Robertson) and went from darkness into light, realizing that much of the Elgin story that many in the UK believe is entirely untrue. He was given permission in the form of a letter (not an officially stamped Firman from the sultan as so many think) to take impressions and drawings of the sculptures so that they could be reproduced to decorate his new house.

He was not given permission to violently hack and saw them off the building, a task which took 300 men an entire year to achieve and required massive bribes to local guards. Elgin’s desire to have these originals for his private house was only thwarted when he finally returned home and found himself with massive debts. The British Museum paid him £35,000 (less than half his expenses for removal and transport) to help resolve his money problems and pay divorce expenses. The one unquestionable thing in this long debate is that the British government did hand over money for these priceless objects. But not to their rightful owners.

Many years after the acquisition, Henry Duveen (another figure with his own shadowy story) gave money for the gallery where they now live and instructed them to be scrubbed with wire wool to make them whiter, an act which by anyone’s standards is seen as an act of destruction, not conservation today.

There is not enough space to express all my emotions on the subject of the mistreatment of these beautiful objects but, needless to say, a small amount of reading was enough to shift my opinion completely and Boris Johnson’s interview last year for a Greek newspaper in which he implied that the Sculptures would never go back to Athens spurred me to join the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, a group which passionately and continuously lobbies for their aim. I am now one of at least 59% of the British population who believes that the Sculptures should be returned to Athens.

Not Just an Epilogue

The politicians and museum trustees and directors on both sides are generally obliged to use polite and careful language and I respect that. It’s how it should be. I am a member of the public, however, and perhaps can use stronger vocabulary. For me, Elgin’s action was a simple story of theft. I am massively embarrassed by it and the British Museum’s stubborn and outdated stance on the matter.

This is a museum which has 8 million objects in its ownership, of which only 80,000 are on display (1 percent!). As well as the moral arguments, there are the practical ones. They will not be short of other objects to display. And there will be rejoicing in the streets, not just of Athens but of London too. Once British politicians fully understand this, I believe the tidal wave of opinion will be irresistible. It’s a matter of them using their hearts as well as their minds and, quite simply, doing the right thing – and recognizing that history itself will see them doing it too.

Related Read:
How Did the Parthenon Marbles End Up in the British Museum?
Doing the Right Thing with the Parthenon Marbles

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